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10 Journalism Rules That Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Content Marketing

The release of Penguin 2.0 confirms what we’ve known for a few years now: Content marketing is the new SEO. Yes, we all claim to abide by it. But few of us internalize what it truly means.

Sure, everyone wants to generate backlinks, traffic, and conversions. To achieve these goals, especially for an e-commerce site or SaaS website, you must do more than post to keyword-rich blogs two or three times a week.

To drive quality traffic to your site, you must think like a publisher. Quality content wins and you need to hone your writing skills. You need to stop thinking about rankings and backlinks and start thinking about content and user engagement.

For this reason, having an in-house marketer with a background in creative content is a huge asset. Luckily, before working as an SEO and marketer, I spent years slaving away as a print journalist. Everything I learned about content marketing I learned from experience printing dried ink on dead trees.

Everything you need to know about content marketing and SEO can be drawn from the top rules of journalism I learned from various mentors over the years. Here are my top 10 rules of journalism and why they’re crucial to executing profitable content marketing:

1. Get out of the building.

For those in the startup world, you probably know this saying all too well. Steve Blank’s famous credo is a reference to his customer development process, which has been taken a step further by Eric Ries in his lean startup methodology.

Steve Blank customer development process

Steve Blank’s customer development borrows from the analytics methods of journalism, which you can use for your content marketing campaigns.

Within the context of lean startups, “get out of the building” is shorthand for talking to your target customers, finding out what they think of your product, and validating your most important assumptions.

Before lean startups and before customer development, editors shouted “get out of the building” at their reporters for decades. In journalism, the key to a good story is to get out of the office, find sources, and generate leads for exclusive stories.

Whether you’re part of a SaaS organization or you’re an online retail merchant, content marketing requires customer outreach, discovery, and feedback. To create awesome content, you need to branch out and post content on websites other than your own. Contribute valuable information to other people’s sites, even if they’re competitors.

Getting off your site and out of your online ghetto will boost your visibility and provide access to many more potential customers. So, instead of thinking only about blogging, try to expend some time and energy on guest blogging and co-hosting webinars.

Once you’ve done some outreach, you need to discover who you’re reaching and what they think of your content and message. It’s this feedback that will help you find out if your content is effectively promoting your brand as an industry leader.

2. The inverted pyramid.

One of the first things you learn in J-school (or as an unpaid journalism intern) is how to utilize the inverted pyramid. You always want to construct your content as if it were an inverted pyramid. Start with a broad thesis and get more specific further on in the article.

The basis of the inverted pyramid is to clearly organize your ideas so you’re presenting the most important ones first. Then provide details to better articulate them.

inverted pyramid of journalism

The inverted pyramid is an essential way to structure your content.

From a content marketing perspective, you need to establish a framework before you get lost in the weeds. Present your users with the big picture and then logically explain it. If you don’t employ the inverted pyramid and just sort of wing it, you’re content is likely to have no narrative flow.

You always want users to see the big picture, because that’s how they’ll see the benefits of reading your content.

Neil Patel, for example, is a great blogger who instinctively understands this point. He always starts with the big picture by explaining why you should care as an entrepreneur or marketer, and then he backs up his opinions with document facts or credible sources like Matt Cutts. One of the main reasons for Neil’s success as a blogger is that he’s obsessed with visualizing the big picture and the benefits to you, rather than focusing too heavily on the technical details. Make sure you do the same with your content.

3. If your lede sucks, the rest doesn’t matter.

If you don’t capture the user’s attention in the first sentence, you’ve already lost them. On the web, you have a few seconds to get someone to notice you. So do it before it’s too late!

To do this, you need a lede (a lead paragraph in journalism lingo) that’s some combination of creative, concise, pithy, abrasive, humble, alarming, and endearing. If your lede doesn’t grab them, you might as well stop writing.

And don’t bury your lede! The most important and fascinating text should go at the top. Writing isn’t like being fashionably late to a party.

4. What’s your nut graf?

In journalism, you refer to the “nut graf” as the thesis of your article. It’s the crux of your argument. Nut graf is a contraction of “nutshell paragraph” (that is, “in a nutshell” paragraph).

Before you publish anything, here’s a quick test: Explain your nut graf in 10 words or less. If you can’t do it, your content isn’t that good.

The nut graf is the writer’s version of the elevator pitch. If you had only 60 seconds to explain your article and convince someone that you are a trusted thought leader, what would you say? That’s exactly what should be in your nut graf.

The nut graf must be poignant and brief, and it probably should follow your lede. That way, you have a nice seductive opener, and you can go right into the big pitch before you lose anyone’s attention.

To read a user-friendly nut graf, check out Tim Grice’s article, “Early Thoughts on Penguin 2.0”:

“If you have been living on a desert island for the past two years and know nothing about Penguin, you can read up on it [in these two articles]. The main takeaways:

  1. The new version of Penguin is more aggressive.
  2. It targets lower-level pages of a site and not just the top level.”

And then Tim goes into greater detail explaining his big takeaways.

This is a great example of taking a complex topic and using your nut graf to make it user friendly. Tim’s article isn’t fancy or overly complex, but it’s very focused and practical. His nut graf sets out his major points in an easy format (bullet points), and then he spends the rest of the article offering supportive evidence that proves his points. This makes his article approachable and engaging.

5. Cut the fat.

Effective content marketing is efficient, intense, and practical. You need to give users a clear value exchange before they lose interest. Fred Wilson’s blog is one of the best examples of this kind of content creation. It is a must-read for entrepreneurs because it offers smart, real-world business/tech advice that rarely exceeds 500 words per post.

That being said, most of us have a tendency to overwrite on the web because there are no space or time constraints.

But when it comes to content, less is more. Keep your content focused, and remove the extraneous clutter. Always remember that the average user has stumbled onto your site in the middle of her day, and she’s going to leave your site the second she’s bored or overwhelmed. So cut the fat and keep it focused.

Stephen King’s famous line is “write drunk, edit sober.” Well, you don’t need to drink when you write, but do embody his spirit, and you’ll be good.

A less-alcoholic formula to follow: (1) write your first draft with no constraints of time or space; (2) review your first draft, and try to cut the word count in half; (3) have a critical and honest reader edit your work and make suggested changes in “track changes”; and finally, (4) review the final draft to make sure it retains your voice and main message. These four steps will ensure you cut the fat.

6. A journalist is only as good as her sources.

One of the most important things you’ll ever learn, both in writing and in life, is that it’s not fascinating just because you say it is. Unless you are Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page, I guess.

And if you’re Larry, you probably don’t need to work so hard to get users to engage with your content, because you’re too busy creating computerized vehicles and glasses that are bicycles for the mind. But if you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us, you need to validate your assumptions or analyze/explain the assumptions of thought leaders.

For example, something said by Matt Cutts supplies instant credibility and provides good fodder for the SEO community. That’s what makes Danny Sullivan such an amazing resource. Sure, his writing is insightful. But he’s always backing up his writing with great sources.

7. Write about what you know – interesting ideas and people – but not about yourself.

This is especially true in content marketing. It doesn’t matter how small or specialized your niche of the market is, there’s always an ocean of content out there for users to choose from. The best content is the material that provides a keen insight and deep domain expertise, not the most generic stuff that can be found on eHow.

To create quality content, you need to embrace your inner nerd and dig deep to write about the topic that you’ve spent years learning and perfecting. If you can’t write about what you know, you aren’t a thought leader and nobody will care what you have to say anyway. From an SEO perspective, backlinks are earned by people who provide valuable content to those who are interested in learning and sharing within their community.

At the same time, don’t be too intimidated to contribute. Just remember to stay humble and always seek feedback. There’s no reason you can’t continue to learn while you share content. In fact, that’s the best way to look at content marketing.

8. Find your focus.

Know your audience and know your topic. And keep it as simple as possible. (Trust me: keeping it simple is the hardest thing you will do.) Content about everything is content about nothing. When in doubt, answer the basic five w’s (who, what, where, when, and why).

Paul Graham is one of the best at this. His essays are magisterial theories on technology, startups, and entrepreneurship. He writes about some of the most complex topics out there. Yet he always finds a way to keep his essays incredibly sharp and to the point. Whether he’s writing about how to get startup ideas or why Yahoo failed, he writes with amazing surgical precision.

This is remarkably hard to do. But it’s this kind of focus that you should be striving for.

9. Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!

Joseph Pulitzer’s three rules of journalism apply to your online marketing, too! You have to be honest and accurate in your assumptions and your marketing, at all times. If you’re not, smart users will bypass you completely.

And if they don’t move on right away, they’ll eventually figure it out and stop paying attention. If you want to build a community online, you have to start by doing your homework and telling the truth.


To take an unfortunate recent example, look at CNN. They were so fixated on being the first to report “exclusive” news on the arrest of the Boston bombers that they completely screwed the pooch and irresponsibly reported inaccurate information. Was it worth it? Of course not! It’s going to take years for CNN to regain its brand as a trusted news sources in an emergency like that.

When it comes to your own content, don’t publish anything dishonest or shady that can tarnish your brand and cost you users.

10. The key to success is stealing from the greats without ever getting caught.

My final rule of journalism is one I learned from an old mentor. This isn’t about journalism as much as any kind of creative content generation. To become a great content creator, you need to study the best, teach yourself new ideas and methodologies, develop your own tastes and enthusiasms, and harness a unique blend of style and substance.

It’s the same for modern marketers. But the good news is that we can be tall by standing on the shoulders of giants. I take a lot of inspiration from Paul Graham, Andrew Chen, and Neil Patel. You can do the same for your industry, whether it’s startups or law blogs.

growth hacker andrew chen

I regularly steal/borrow ideas and styles from great bloggers and marketers like Andrew Chen.

There’s a lot to consider in this list. So let me sum it up in case you skipped to the end of the post to see where I was going. The crux of my argument is that content marketing is about a lot more than just keywords and backlinks. It’s about developing a brand and saying things that are worth listening to. If you focus on that kind of content, you’ll eventually attract loyal users and build a valuable community.

About the Author: Adam de Jong is the Marketing Director for National Positions, an online marketing and SEO company based in Los Angeles, CA. National Positions works with hundreds of companies and has been named to Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest growing privately held companies from 2009-2012.

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